Israel’s Rana Raslan has all the makings of a typical beauty queen. First, she looks the part: An olive-skinned, I raven-haired Mediterranean stunner, she has enjoyed posing for the camera since childhood. So it wouldn’t seem surprising that she has had success as a fashion model or that when she became one of the 20 contestants in the Miss Israel competition last March, it was she who went home the winner.
But in one respect her win was a shocker. No sooner had Raslan, 22, been crowned Miss Israel at a televised contest in Tel Aviv than it became obvious to many of her compatriots that the Jewish state’s new reigning beauty isn’t Jewish—in fact, she’s an Arab. “I want to speak, I want to say something,” a seemingly stunned Raslan, who was born and raised in the Islamic faith, told the audience that night. “I will represent Israel in the best manner possible. It doesn’t matter if I am an Arab or a Jew. We must show the world that we can live together.”
Typically, terrorist bombings and sectarian strife dominate Israeli TV’s evening news, so Raslan’s victory was greeted as a sign of progress by many Israelis—”a clear expression of equality and coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel,” in the words of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Some Israeli Arabs, who make up about one-sixth of the nation’s population of 6 million and have long complained bitterly of unfair treatment by the Jewish majority—object that Raslan, who will represent Israel at the May 26 Miss Universe pageant in Trinidad and Tobago, is being used by the government as a political pawn. But many others seemed proud to see a fellow Muslim break new ground. “It gave us a warm feeling,” says Israeli parliament member Taleb a-Sanaa, an Arab. “But to say this is a revolution is going a bit overboard.”
Yet it is a dramatic turn of events for one very grateful model from Haifa. “To this day I’m still surprised,” says Raslan, who was raised by her mother, hotel cook Faida Raslan, 44, in a working-class neighborhood in the port city. “My mother always told me not to expect too much in the contest because they always pick Jews, not Arabs. I couldn’t believe it when they called my name.”
Since then, Raslan has been treated like a hero in her ethnically diverse hometown, where she lives with her mother and three siblings in a four-bedroom apartment that affords views of the sea on one side and majestic Mount Carmel on the other. “In my building alone there are Muslims, two Jewish families and an Arab Christian family,” she says. “I’ve never had any problem here.”
But her life has not always been easy. Rana’s mother and her father, electrician Rezik Raslan, 53, divorced when she was 13, and two years later her oldest brother, Ashraf, 25, began a prison term for assault, which ended just last year. While attending a private Catholic school chosen by her mother for its high standards, Rana cleaned houses to help buy groceries for the family, which includes her brother Michael, 23, also an electrician, and sister Salma, 13.
At 15, Raslan entered the first of several small beauty pageants. Yet she never believed an Arab woman could be named Miss Israel, and she was reluctant to try. Finally, “I told her she had nothing to lose,” says Faida, who didn’t object to the pageants (though she did forbid her daughter to accept an offer from a photographer who wanted to take her to France to become an international model). Rana’s photo was selected from among those of 800 Miss Israel hopefuls for the national pageant in March.
Now that her modeling fees are expected to shoot from $35 a day to $1,000, Raslan says she has the confidence needed for the Miss Universe competition in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, even if some conservative Arabs back home object to the immodesty of the swimsuit competition. (“As if these girls are selling their bodies!” scoffs her mother. “My daughter is still a virgin.”) And when it comes to the predictable questions about an Arab representing Israel, Raslan is ready. “I’ve never felt I wasn’t an Israeli,” she says. “Besides, this isn’t politics, this is a beauty contest.”
Herb Keinon in Haifa